The Historical Background

Crookston-CastleFought in virtually the same location as Bannockburn, the Battle of Sauchieburn has been seen as a minor tremor in Scots history, worth little more than a couple of sentences in most historical textbooks. It certainly hasn’t been embraced in Scottish popular culture, perhaps because the idea of a civil war has far less romantic appeal than the image of the plucky Scot facing up to the ‘Auld Enemy’ from south of the border.

But for the individuals involved, the Battle of Sauchieburn had a significant impact. John Sempill’s story is a case in point. By the late 15th century, the Sempills had settled comfortably into the administrative structure of Renfrewshire: they’d risen from retainers of the Stewarts to barons in their own right and hereditary sheriffs of Renfrew. But the death of Sir Thomas Sempill at Sauchieburn put all their previous success in jeopardy.

John Sempill’s biography is quite patchy. We know he died at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, but we don’t know when he was born. He was possibly a good bit older than I’ve made him in Fire and Sword, but to fight at Flodden, he would have had to have been younger than 65 to be selected for the host. John’s story is typical of a minor player at the time: he left a legacy both in the form of built heritage, and in the historical record through a myriad of administrative documents that mark his life and political career.

Several things are certain. At Sauchieburn, the Sempills fought alongside the Cunninghames as loyal followers of James the Third. And Sir Thomas Sempill – John’s father – died there. We know the Montgomeries supported James the Fourth that night, and that Lord Hugh was personally commended for his valiant conduct on the field.

It’s also clear that the losers at Sauchieburn were subjected to a campaign of intimidation in the wake of Sauchieburn, as the winning faction sought to gain ground and consolidate their hold of the kingdom in both financial and political terms. John Sempill’s case was typical of many. His lands were harassed and his tenants persecuted by a trio of local magnates: John Stewart, Earl of Lennox, Matthew Stewart, Master of Lennox, and Robert, Lord Lyle.

Many similar feuds which flourished in the wake of Sauchieburn persisted. The feud between the Montgomeries and the Cunninghames, for example, was still ongoing in the mid-1600s. But John Sempill seems to have deliberately chosen an alternative path, one which seems quite at odds with the traditional view of the Scots nobility, who are invariably portrayed as fractious individuals who nurse grievances and take offence at the slightest thing. Sempill soon made his peace with the new King, and just a year later, was back in possession of the titles that had been stripped from him after Sauchieburn and sporting a knighthood for good measure.

The secret to John Sempill’s success must surely lie with Hugh, 3rd Lord Montgomerie. Sempill clawed his way back to success at a time when Montgomerie’s star was at its brightest, and it’s probably no co-incidence from this point onwards, there was increasing co-operation between the two families, with the affairs of the Sempills and the Montgomeries becoming ever more closely intertwined. Whether their negotiations actually took place in the way I depicted them in Fire and Sword is, however, open to question. In reality it’s more likely that John was much more forceful in his demands, warning Montgomerie in no uncertain terms that without his backing, the Sempills would support the Cunninghames, thereby making Montgomerie’s task in controlling the Westland much, much harder.

As for the King’s missing gold… Once again, this key part of the underlying plot has its roots in historical fact. I learned at an early point from one of our local historical sources that John’s mother, Elizabeth Ross, was either the sister or the daughter of John Ross of Montgrennan. This meant very little, until I discovered that Ross of Montgrennan was King James III’s Lord Advocate, and that he fled to London just before the Battle of Sauchieburn and stayed there until at least a year into James IV’s reign. The mystery of the King’s empty treasury was something which vexed James IV and his supporters, and it seemed natural that rumour and hearsay regarding the missing gold would be used as a weapon in any attempt to win ground at Sempill’s expense.

I should also take this opportunity to mention the affair of the ‘Bluidy Serk’. The amazing volte-face undertaken by Lennox, Darnley and Lyle did in fact take place, with the triumvirate of disaffected nobles leading a second rebellion a year into James IV’s reign, demanding justice for James III’s death just a few months after they’d made concerted efforts to make Sempill suffer for his loyalty to that same king at Sauchieburn in Sauchieburn. It’s unknown whether John Stewart took on the role of rabble-rouser and how exactly he became attached to Forbes and Atholl and the rest remains a mystery, but it was this peculiar turn of events that intrigued me when I first started writing the book, and it certainly seemed to be one of those occasions where the truth was much stranger than any plot-line any determined author could ever imagine.

There’s much more, of course. And hopefully I’ll be able to shed some more insights into this period of Scots history and its political shenanigans both in this part of the website and in future novels. The ill feeling generated by these events clearly lingered. A few years later, John Sempill and Matthew Stewart were ordered to come together in the presence of the King and to shake hands and accept each other’s friendship.

But King’s orders asides, I think a lot of credit has to go to John Sempill for steadfastly promoting peace and order throughout his lifetime. Ayrshire might have been collapsing into chaos and feuding, but in John Sempill’s lifetime, Renfrewshire flourished. He was a builder and a peacemaker, and I hope that my interpretation of his character in Fire and Sword reflects this.

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